Last Updated June 22, 2023.
This scene opens at Olivia’s house with a conversation between Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle, and Maria, Olivia’s lady-in-waiting. Toby is disgusted by his niece’s chosen method of mourning, and Maria relates that Olivia is disgusted by Toby’s drinking and late hours.
There is also the problem of Toby’s companion, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Toby claims Sir Andrew is educated and dignified, but Maria disagrees, calling Sir Andrew a cowardly, quarrelsome fool.
Sir Andrew himself enters, and Maria’s assessment proves true. He misunderstands Maria’s name, and as the conversation continues, Maria makes a series of jokes which Sir Andrew doesn’t seem to understand. Maria exits, leaving Sir Toby and Sir Andrew to discuss the nature of wit and revelry.
Sir Andrew decides that he will leave Illyria for home the next day. He has hoped to win Olivia’s hand, but even the Duke is making little progress in his wooing. Sir Toby asserts that Olivia will not have the Duke, for she will “not match above her degree, neither in estate, years, nor wit.” In other words, according to Sir Toby, Olivia will not marry the Duke because she is socially and intellectually inferior.
Sir Toby implies that Sir Andrew is the right match for Olivia. Sir Andrew, in turn, declares that he will remain in Illyria another month, and the two enter into a bawdy conversation about dancing and astrology before they exit to engage in their nightly revelry.
In scene 4, the action returns to the Duke’s palace. Valentine and Viola enter, with Viola dressed as a young man. Valentine mentions that the Duke has shown Viola—now going by Cesario—much favor. The Duke, Curio, and other attendants arrive, and the Duke orders Viola to visit Olivia and insist upon an audience with her.
Viola will even resort to bad manners if necessary to gain entrance. The “young man” must vehemently declare Orsino’s passions and woes to Olivia, for the Duke believes that she will accept the message better from the youth. Viola disagrees and then relents, but she says in an aside to the audience that she would rather be the Duke’s wife than woo another on his behalf.
Scene 3 introduces three central characters and two themes. Sir Toby Belch, whose name reflects his indulgent and drunken character, is Olivia’s uncle. He takes advantage of his niece and her generosity, living (and indulging himself) at her expense.
Sir Toby believes himself to be a great wit and a man of high class, and he claims the same for his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek. But Sir Toby reveals himself as a silly and ignorant fellow who takes great pleasure in low and bawdy jokes.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek is even more obtuse and buffoonish than Sir Toby. Although Sir Toby claims that Sir Andrew possesses education, wealth, and status, Maria recognizes him for the fool he is. She proclaims that he is both quarrelsome and cowardly, and while he may have money, he spends it quickly and wastefully.
Sir Andrew proves Maria right when Sir Toby tells him to “accost”—that is, address—Maria. Sir Andrew promptly declares, “Good Mistress Accost, I desire better acquaintance.”
Even after Maria tells him her real name, Sir Andrew continues to struggle, and Maria takes full advantage of his bewilderment to pull off several jokes at his expense. Sir Andrew also falls short of Sir Toby’s assurances that he has mastered several languages by failing to recognize even the most basic French words. Even Sir Andrew’s surname displays the weakness of his...
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character. “Aguecheek” suggests a face rosy with fever but pale and feeble beneath that deceptive color.
Maria is by far the cleverest of the three characters. In a sense, Shakespeare uses Maria to exercise his skill at wordplay. When Sir Toby declares that Sir Andrew “has three thousand ducats a year,” Maria offers a witty insult: “Ay, but he’ll have but a year in all these ducats.” In other words, he spends them as fast as he gets them.
In her exchange with Sir Andrew, Maria plays on the many meanings of the word dry. When Sir Andrew, who does not understand much of what Maria says, asks what her metaphor is, she responds, “It’s dry, sir.” She is referring both to thirst—for she has just referenced the available store of alcohol at the house—and to someone who is “dried up,” or wasted and useless.
Maria continues by saying that she has a “dry jest,” which refers both to a sarcastic joke and to someone who is a dull laughingstock—in other words, Sir Andrew himself. Maria brilliantly and amusingly insults Sir Andrew, but he fails to recognize it.
Scene 3 also introduces two themes. The first is revelry. Even the title of the play, Twelfth Night, points to this theme, for in Shakespeare’s time, the twelfth night after Christmas was a day of revelry. On this day of festivity, the whole world appeared to be turned upside down and inside out, and nothing was exactly what it seemed to be.
It was a day of chaos and foolishness when drink, song, and merriment reigned. Sir Toby and Sir Andrew bring this revelry into the play, but they are not the only ones responsible for the chaos throughout the tale. Viola’s deception and disguise and the misunderstandings that arise also contribute to the sense that the world is not at all what it appears to be.
The second theme that appears in scene 3 is that of social status and ambition. Olivia, Sir Toby explains, wishes to marry within her status. He may need to be corrected about this or simply ignorant, for Sir Toby is not a credible character, but his statement introduces the theme. On the other hand, Sir Andrew is clearly well below Olivia in class, intelligence, and character, yet he aspires to win her hand.
Scene 4 advances the plot and comments again on the nature of love. The Duke sends Viola, disguised as a young man, to petition Olivia and convey his passionate love for her. Orsino is still unwilling to accept Olivia’s refusal. He even tells Viola—known as Cesario to him—to “Be clamorous, and leap all civil bounds” to gain an audience.
In other words, Viola is to be rude, if she must, to deliver the Duke’s message. One could argue that this approach is hardly loving. The Duke is driven by his passion, but his love for Olivia—in the sense of wanting what is best for her—is questionable.
Moreover, Viola is already feeling the effects of her deception. Now dressed as a man, she discovers she has fallen in love with Orsino. Ironically, she is now sent to propose to another woman on behalf of the man she loves and wants to marry. Her disguise is backfiring on her as the play’s action rises.
On his part, Orsino fails to see through Viola’s disguise, despite noticing that her face is smooth and her voice is high and clear. He has no idea that the one who loves him more than Olivia ever will stand beside him. The audience may wonder, however, how Viola has come to love Orsino so quickly, especially when he is lovesick over another woman. Perhaps she is caught up more in passion than true love.